“Cameras are the antidote and the disease, a means of appropriating reality and of making it obsolete.” – Susan Sontag
In her 1977 essay, “The Image-World,” Susan Sontag wrote that the practice of photography – and the overabundance of images that come along with it – leave us desensitized to the “real” world. Despite the fact that photographs are considered traces of their subject, we typically see photographs as independent, material objects – separate from their original subjects and somehow more palatable. They even occupy a specific moment of time, different from our own, turning the present into the past and the past into the present.
But Sontag was writing about the role of the photograph as she knew it, which never included sculpture, or photographs functioning not just as traces of objects but as actual simulations, or three-dimensional copies. The last year has seen a rise in artists working with photography in sculpture, with more than a few of these artists choosing to juxtapose “real” objects with their 2- or 3-dimensional, photographic copies. Is there a difference between images functioning like this in the world and “the image-world” that Sontag describes? Or are they one and the same?
Ironically, even as Sontag was puzzling over “The Image-World” and the rest of the essays that would become On Photography, searching to delineate a niche in the fine art world for photography, curator Peter Bunnell took an even larger step. In 1970, Bunnell launched “Photography into Sculpture” at the Museum of Modern Art, “the first comprehensive survey of photographically formed images used in a sculptural or fully dimensional manner.”
The show included a work by Jerry McMillan called “Wrinkle Bag” (1965) – perhaps one of the first of its kind. “Wrinkle Bag” was not merely a photograph, but a high-quality, black-and-white reproduction of the texture of crumpled paper, cut into the shape of a brown paper lunch sack. In its recent re-manifestation at Los Angeles’ Cherry and Martin Gallery, “Wrinkle Bag” looked eerily contemporary, perhaps because this type of photographic reproduction has resurfaced recently in the works of contemporary artists, like Urs Fischer, amongst others.
In 2008, Fischer collaborated with Gavin Brown on the exhibition “Who’s Afraid of Jasper Johns?”, at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery. Fischer and Brown hired a photographer to document the gallery’s previous show – “Four Friends”, which included work by Donald Baechler, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and Kenny Scharf – and then wallpapered the gallery with the images, printed in a 1:1 scale. The results were chaotic, with the photographed work punctuating, even interrupting, the current exhibit. There were even moments where a photographed object was juxtaposed against the original, as in the case of the security guard.
Fischer repeated this technique last year for his solo exhibition at the New Museum, taking photographs of the entire third floor, including the ceiling, and then re-papering those same walls at a 1:1 ratio. 2-d images of the side of the exit sign line up with the exit sign itself; the ceiling is covered with a huge photograph that includes two-dimensional images of flickering flourescent lights, right next to the lights themselves.
By all reports, this was a challenging room to walk through, although reactions varied – many went through to quickly and missed the minor details. Conversely, the reward for those who took their time was an unsettled feeling brought on by the proximity of “real” and “unreal” copies of the same object. There is a visceral difference between experiencing a photographic image on its own and as an image returned to its original context, or placed back in the image world as an object.
Perhaps the most intriguing of these artists is Miriam Bohm, who has completed multiple series – Inventory and Areal, for example – in which she photographs objects such as packages, arranges those photographs in ways that echo the original arrangement, and then rephotographs them. The result is a complex layer of images, leaving you, as the viewer, with nothing concrete save the object of the photograph itself. In the words of Brendan Fay, writing for Artforum, “In Bohm’s hands, it is the photograph’s presence as an object that provides the most immediate basis for apprehending the image it contains.”
“Our unlimited use of photographic images not only reflects but gives shape to this society, one unified by the denial of conflict.”
Sontag was curious about the image-world she described, including whether it was the only variety possible. She even proposed an ecology of images, or a mitigating of sorts. In reality, we’ve gone the opposite direction – more images surround us than ever – but when artists insist on re-inserting an image back into its original context, or even threaten to use it to replace an object, it’s hard not to believe there’s a shift afoot.
The French philosopher Michel Foucault considered prisons to be examples of a unique kind of place, both set aside from reality and somehow counter to it. Along with cemeteries, boarding schools, brothels, boats, and Oriental gardens, they contain the otherwise incompatible: past and present, dead and living, or, as in the case of the garden, the world as a microcosm with the world as a macrocosm.1
Foucault named this type of place a “heterotopia”—in medical terms, a displacement of parts. Its physical attributes are only important insofar as they lend themselves to achieving a particular state of mind. Foucault was most interested in the state of mind in which you notice, as you look at yourself in the mirror, that you are only able to see yourself—to define yourself as real—because an identical, yet unreal, version of yourself is looking back.
We gravitate toward such experiences, though we prefer to only follow the equation halfway. Our love for reality TV or dramas like Criminal Minds represents our desire for a controlled taste of the butterflies that come from seeing the Other in one’s self (the thought: “Oh! I act like that sometimes!”). The reverse can also be true—the entertainment industry makes an equal amount of capital by providing us with goods that allow us to feel good about recognizing ourselves in others (the thought: “She’s just like me!”).
But what of the place or the moment, asked Foucault, that includes the experience of the reflection itself? An experience in which we don’t just see, but we see ourselves both seeing and being seen? To willfully create such an experience is an art, particularly when the tools at hand are largely discursive. Yet this is what We Players, a site-specific theatre troupe featuring a revolving collective of actors, dancers, and artists, have done, and they have done it with and because of one particular site: Alcatraz Island, the most infamous of all federal penitentiaries, and one of the Bay Area’s top tourist destinations.
Alcatraz has a big history for such a tiny pile of rock (twenty-two acres). The Muwekma Ohlone refused to use it, except to gather eggs. Various other indigenous groups considered it either bad luck, sacred, or both.2 Lieutenant Don Juan Manuel de Ayala, the captain of the San Carlos and the first Spanish explorer to see the island, wrote that it was “very steep and barren and would not afford shelter even for [a] launch.”3 Eventually, the United States military took control, turned it into a prison, and then passed it over to the federal government during the Great Depression, under whose purview it remained until 1963.4 More recently, in 1964 and again from 1969 to 1971, Alcatraz was occupied by Native Americans protesting the federal government’s policy toward their land rights.5
Despite the fact that the protest began with a lot of community support, that support had waned significantly after two years. The National Park Service took control of the island in 1972, and today the trip to Alcatraz is a rite of passage for every visitor to and resident of the Bay, including most of its elementary-school-aged youth. Alcatraz remains best known as a place for “killers too tough for steel walls to cage,” or as a facility that housed the “worst of the worst” for a brief moment in its history,: Al Capone, the Birdman, George “Machine Gun” Kelly.6 These names, plus the fourteen escape attempts—some of which ended in death—are a large part of the reason visitors keep coming. Perhaps we want to know what the consequences would be if we let out “the worst of the worst” inside us—an experience similar to our penchant for crime TV.
In 2008, We Players, under the leadership of artistic director Ava Roy and her longtime collaborator Lauren Dietrich Chavez, the current managing director, performed Macbeth at Fort Point National Historical Site, in San Francisco, to an audience that included Amy Brees, then soon-to-be site supervisor of Alcatraz National Park. Brees recognized a kinship between We Players’ site-specific practices and those of the National Park Service on Alcatraz, and eventually extended We Players an invitation to use the island as their next location. Specifically, We Players were contracted to use the site to help the National Park Service deepen its exploration of themes of isolation, redemption, and justice, all part of the Alcatraz mythology. In 2009, We Players staged a retelling of the Oresteia on Alcatraz, followed in 2010 by Hamlet—plays that explore the cycle of justice and all its progeny. As is its trademark, We Players utilized the entire island as a stage, immersing its audience members in each scene, surrounding them with both place and narrative.
Roy and Chavez say they knew from the beginning that the plays wouldn’t be enough of an answer to the site; they alluded only to the general themes present in Alcatraz’s history and touched too lightly on present specifics. What is least effective and remains Alcatraz’s largest missed opportunity in the eyes of We Players is the gaping black hole that exists where information on the current penitentiary system should be. Over the course of the past year, with the help of artist and curator Patrick Gillespie, We Players has attempted to fill this gap by staging four exhibitions combining visual arts and discursive panels, ultimately hoping to provide its audience with insight on what it means to be incarcerated in 2011.
A mere fifteen miles north of Alcatraz sits the San Quentin State Prison, which also provides tours of its facilities, although the number of tourists and Bay Area residents who go out of their way to take this tour (assuming they have no family inside) is far fewer than the one million who visit Alcatraz.7 There is no comparison. Alcatraz’s three-story, steel-reinforced concrete cellhouse has a total of 336 cells. At one prisoner per cell, the average population never reached capacity, hovering around 275.8 In contrast, San Quentin has capacity for 3,302 prisoners but currently houses 5,247.9 There is so much body heat produced that the upper levels are significantly warmer. At Alcatraz, a man was allowed to step outside of his cell after his morning shave. At San Quentin, it’s not uncommon for a prisoner to be cuffed and shackled, then stripped and searched before being allowed to leave his cell.10
Whether or not it is the job of the National Park Service to provide this kind of information, the fact remains that Alcatraz is one of the few prisons accessible to the general public, and it belies the contemporary experience of incarceration. We Players’ first exhibition, Proliferation, included a video work and performance of the same title by artist and musician Paul Rucker, produced in 2009 while he held a Prison Issues residency at the Blue Mountain Center. The video starts out black. The visuals, scored with a cello, unfold slowly. Dots of different colors, each representing a prison built during a particular time period in U.S. history, begin to appear. The culmination of the video corresponds to the period with the largest proliferation of prisons, 1981 to 2005. The piece sets a mood, but more importantly, it speaks to the tension between talking about incarceration in quantitative versus qualitative terms. For the next three exhibitions—Invisible People, Youth Perspectives, and Images from the Inside—Gillespie, Roy, and Chavez chose to concentrate on the qualitative, showing the work of prisoners, or work done in collaboration with prisoners, as well as hosting a series of educational panels.
Invisible People showcased work by artists Monica Lundy and Evan Bissell. Lundy’s oil-and-gouache portraits of women stem from her research on San Quentin’s female inmates in the California State Archives. The resulting portraits are muted and patchy, suggestive of our incomplete understanding of the subjects. In contrast, Bissell’s portraits are collaborations between artist and subject. Through a group called Community Works West, Bissell teaches writing and art workshops to prisoners and the children of prisoners. The pieces on display for Invisible People were the result of a five-month-long collaboration with different individuals in these groups, in which they worked with Bissell to make nearly life-size portraits that placed them in personalized locations with symbols of their choosing.
At the closing ceremony for Invisible People, which I attended, Bissell led gallery visitors through many of the same exercises he performs with his collaborators. We ate tangerines and did some contour drawings of the peels, and then wrote letters to an important life figure. Afterward, we wandered around to look at the work, and I found myself flipping through a journal full of show comments. They ranged from inane—“Thug Life” scrawled in block letters—to openly emotional: “Most of the adults in my life have spent time in jail. The only one ‘fixed’ by it stayed in jail 3 days. The ones spending the longest are still effected [sic]. Does it work? Maybe. Does it tear families apart? Definitely, but so do drugs.” At this moment, I moved, like Bissell, from being a mere voyeur to a participant—not merely seeing myself reflected, but beginning to notice my reflection watching me in return.
Implicit here, and in Foucault’s argument, is the question of complicity, something also touched on by Pelican Bay inmate Les Dewberry in his acrylic painting Justice, from 1993. Justice is part of We Players’ final exhibition, Images from the Inside, up through November 12, 2011. Compiled with the help of Carol Newborg of the William James Association, a Bay Area nonprofit, Images presents a collection of works made by prisoners in the California corrections system through a program called Arts-in-Corrections. The program lost its funding in 2009 and was forced to close in 2010, after thirty years in operation at different facilities across the state, plus a documented twenty-seven percent drop in recidivism and a seventy-five percent drop in disciplinary actions for its participants. In 2009, the Dalai Lama recognized one of the Arts-in-Corrections artists facilitators, Steve Emerick, as an Unsung Hero of Compassion for his work at San Quentin. Arts-in-Corrections is survived by its originator, the William James Association’s Prison Arts Project, which currently relies on donations to pay its artists facilitators at San Quentin and the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco.11
Justice draws a thick black boundary between outside and inside across the middle of the painting, so that it becomes the horizon line. Those on the outside are bodiless faces, holding signs that say “Vote.” Only the prisoners and the guards, depicted as stick figures, have mobility and access to the interior. The prisoners are white and black with blue and red handkerchiefs, and several are holding weapons. The guards are separated from the prisoners by the outline of the state of California, made of prison bars dripping in red. The guards wear green and orange and look suspiciously like soldiers, an observation that squares with the comments of every single member of the panel on arts in prisons that followed the exhibition: that the penal system is devolving into a privatized, industrial complex with no thought toward rehabilitation. What’s striking about Justice is that everyone is complicit: those outside who stare in, the prisoners who ignore the stares and fight amongst themselves, and the guards that do nothing.
Dewberry’s painting ushers in a missing voice, a perspective from the inside on what is occurring outside, and the programming for an upcoming and culminating symposium promises to do the same—to reflect the experience of the reflection. The complexity of the project shouldn’t be overlooked, technically or bureaucratically. In the first place, We Players have used just about every tool in the arts and humanities toolbox, from theater to dance to rhetoric to the visual arts. As for the second: for Images alone, obtaining permission to show prisoners’ artwork required so many signatures that We Players toyed with the idea of displaying the documentation, but ultimately held off, wary of how it might be misinterpreted as provenance, the historical record of authenticity that collectors lust after. It almost goes without saying that works by prisoners are fetishized, and more so if they are works by inmates with cachet. Similarly, to invite former prisoners to come speak about their experiences as either artists or as prisoners requires a delicate attention to the entirety of their circumstances, including their original crime and their potential victims.
For the moment, the beating heart of Los Angeles’s Pacific Standard Time is Betye Saar’s installation Red Time, 2011, at Roberts and Tilton. Saar has transformed the middle room of the gallery into a shrine for past, present, and future, painting Roberts and Tilton’s interior room a bright red and allowing a variety of her customary assemblage works to act as friends and neighbors to each other, despite where they were collected from or when they were made. In fact, one of the most striking things about Red Time is the position it takes on memory and history. While Saar has divided Red Time into three separate sections–”In the Beginning,” “Migration and Transformation,” and “Beyond Memory”–she has also unified them through her use of a singular, strong background color and their enclosure in one small room.
Saar first rose to prominence in the 1960s as a Joseph Cornell-inspired assemblage artist who insistently tackled issues of race and history, and these issues remain central, both figuratively and literally. Many of the pieces that make up the “Migration and Transformation” section of Red Time, which occupies the wall opposite the room’s entrance, are radical détournements of Aunt Jemimah and Uncle Tom figures, a technique that Saar may have been the first to utilize and perfect. In fact, it is the juxtaposition of the pleasing formal rhythms, the coziness of the physical space, and the chilling historical narratives referenced by pieces such as There Will Be Blood, 2011, To the Manor Born, 2011, and Is Jim Crow Really Dead, 1972, that drives the work.
Among the works that Saar felt absolutely needed to be present in the installation is Red Ascension, 2011, a wooden ladder hung toward the top of the wall in “Beyond Memory.” Nestled amongst the rungs are wooden sculptures that tell a familiar story: an African mask, several wooden ships, chains, and a crescent moon and star. The ladder points viewers to the wall that is both the first and last in the exhibit, the wall to which their backs are turned for the majority of time they are in the room. It is the wall with the entry and exit door, on which a series of masks hang, looking back at the viewers with all manners of expression. Red Time is not solely a time of despair or anger. It is also a time of rebirth and open-ended questioning.
Where art, pop culture, & politics collide. A bi-monthly column for DailyServing.com, #Hashtags provides a platform for longer reconsiderations of artworks and art practices outside of the review format and in new contexts. Please send queries and/or ideas for future to email@example.com.
For the last year, Bay Area artist Chris Sollars has sported a biblical behemoth of a beard, although his cleanly shaven cheeks are once again on view in Sollars’s newest project, Hairy, shown as part of YBCA’s Bay Area Now. It’s an interesting update on an identity-probing lineage that includes predecessors like Chris Burden, Gordon Matta Clark, James Luna, Ana Mendieta, and David Hammons. DailyServing recently had the opportunity to chat with Chris about the work.
DS: So! Since I haven’t seen you in a while, are you closest to Man, Woman, or Child?
CS: Closest to Child! But since I’m doing these hair events, I’ve been growing the beard back. It’s just not very long. I have scruff, but it’s not a “beard” beard.
DS: I have to ask, which came first, the beard or the art?
CS: Well, even before the beard, I’ve always known that I wanted to make a wig of my long hair, which I’ve had since high school, and wear it at a later date. That’s why the title is Hair and the subtitle is When I’m 64. I like the collision of those two moments of time—wearing hair from when I was thirty-four when I’m sixty-four. So I think that piece came first. As for the beard, I started growing it, and it just turned into its own thing. My girlfriend took a long trip and by the time she got back, I already had a bunch of things I wanted to do with it. Before I cut it, I wanted to let it grow a little longer and let it live on its own, and it inspired a series of works. I’d done a performance in 1998 at Skowhegan where I went to a tool shop in Maine with a lot of old tools and was drawn toward this long handled axe… I personally tried to sharpen it and make a video of me shaving with it. Of course, I didn’t have much hair back then, because I was 22, and I didn’t have the capacity to grow hair like I do now. Anyway, I decided that with this new beard I wanted to do it again, with an axe. Working with my wigmaker, however, I had to grow the beard as long as possible, and if I was going to shave it off with an axe, it wouldn’t work as a wig. It’s a really a rare thing, to make a wig out of someone’s own beard hair, because you’re hand-knotting, and working with different clumps of hair—looping it like a rug—and it’s a difficult thing, even if your beard is really long, because it’s still so short.
DS: It’s probably pretty brittle, too.
CS: Yeah. So I decided to do the beard wig first, and then grow back a beard that was substantial enough to shave off with an axe. So that was the process. And in between, before I cut off all the hair, I wanted to do a series of related videos.
DS: Were you intentionally trying to touch on issues of gender and masculinity?
CS: Well, yeah. I named the triptych (the photographs of myself) Man Woman Child (2011) on purpose, because… Well, a child would never have a beard like that and a woman would never have a beard to that extent. I’ve always had fine hair, and I’ve always been in between being kind of “girlie” and, well, not.
DS: Shaving your beard with an axe is such an over the top gesture! And you’re wearing this plaid flannel. But I noticed that as you started to talk about your work, you weren’t talking about gender as much as you were talking about intersecting moments in time, or an interest in working with certain tools.
CS: Well, [the interest in the axe] led to that. It led to the absurdity of knowing that I could cut down trees, but that I could also cut my face with the thing! There’s a moment in the videos where there’s a cut or change or rupture that happens. I’m thinking of the video edit like I am cutting hair, so there’s a real switch that happens, a change of one’s look, or the change that can happen with a cut when you juxtapose one image with the next. Leading up to the show, in fact, and even currently, I’ve been hiding out a little bit, just until people have seen that work [and realize that Sollars is now totally clean-shaven]. It’s kind of a strange performance that’s still going on. I was even wearing costumes to change my identity around town. I didn’t want to reveal that I’d cut my hair until the show had opened. I realized as soon as I cut my long hair that that pieces like mine and like Chris Burden’s I Became A Secret Hippy (1971) don’t exist as just performances, but as pieces of our identity from that point forward.
DS: What about race? Does that play in at all? I might be reading more into the project than what you intend, but I read an article in the New York Times about Matta Clark’s Clock Shower (1973), and writer’s spin was about how it was this glorious time in New York when this guy could walk to the top of the Clocktower building and cover himself in shaving cream and then diddle with the clock. And my thought was yeah, if he’s white, he can do this. Going from that thought, and looking at your work, which includes this golden ball of hair surveying a forest and the golden blonde Hair Lays and the Beard Rubs, which seem to be about marking or claiming in certain ways, I’m just curious if there are any thoughts about…
CS: …about identity in relation to race? Well, I think that perception of where I exist culturally, or politically or socially, changes with the haircut. Going back to Burden’s Secret Hippy, you might be a countercultural person, but you’re wiped of that in terms of your identity. I guess that’s why I also looked at Ana Mendieta’s piece with the transplanting of the man’s beard onto her face, taking on that masculinity. Or Adrian Piper’s Mythic Being. So I’m aware of these female performances and cross cultural performances with hair and identity, and I was thinking, okay, so if there’s this white man art with these things opposed to it or juxtaposed against it, what is white male identity art? Or what is it specifically to me? I guess that’s why I focus so much on the hair as a material, like with close-ups of the hair grain, which I think of as wood grain. Kind of just investigating what is it that my being is made up of. You know, the scraggly curly beard hair, the long fine hair… What happens when I change? When I’m separated from it? How does it exist on its own as an abstraction, like with the Hair Lays, or the beard itself rubbing on things? I think the masculine action of shaving with an axe kind of completes the picture of that identity of that person. And I’ve been so influenced by a lot of that ‘70s work that I was curious about performing that investigation on myself.
The year is 1964. The place, New York. The artwork? A series of realistically-gory meat sculptures, made of resin and placed in a series of Plexiglas vitrines. Meant as a critique of minimalism and its squeamishly hermetic attributes, Paul Thek’s Technological Reliquaries (1964–1966) were thought, at the time, to be hugely radical. According to the attendants at UCLA’s Hammer Museum — the third (and only West Coast) museum to host Paul Thek: Diver, A Retrospective — the radical nature of these pieces tends to be lost on many present-day museum visitors.
Apparently, most people brush through the first two rooms of the exhibit, where the Reliquaries are situated. In all honesty, the sculptures are pretty gross, hunks of fatty flesh trapped in transparent, rectangular boxes, with the occasional fly thrown in for effect. But for those of us with even the shallowest knowledge of what the capital-A art world was like in the 1960s, Thek’s work is heartbreaking.
Moving through the beginning of the exhibit at a slower pace reveals Reliquaries like Untitled (1966–1967) and Hand with Ring (1966–1967), transitional pieces that point toward Thek’s next major gallery show, The Tomb, at Eleanor Ward Gallery in 1967. Untitled is a cast of Thek’s arm, painted metallic silver with a series of pale pink bands around the wrist and lower part of the hand and displayed in a vitrine half-covered with a pink cloth ending in human hair; Hand with Ring, a cast of Thek’s hand, or three fingers and a thumb, sprouting forth from a pedestal and painted a la the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour album cover.
Thek’s interest in religion, mysticism, and the flesh (not to mention psychotropics and his conflicted feelings about his homosexuality) are at the fore of his work, placing him, in my mind, at least, with the Surrealists and psychedelic rock, rather than the conceptual artists and minimalists that formed his American milieu. Maybe Thek felt out of place, because despite the success of The Tomb, in which Thek laid himself to rest in a fleshy-pink ziggurat, Thek and his lover, Peter Hujar, relocated to Europe. Further proof of Thek’s uniqueness can be found in works from this period, including Dwarf Parade Table (1969), a table supported by wooden dwarves, usually installed to look like a large group feast has just ended, and Fishman in Excelsis Table (1970–1971), a table pulled up to the ceiling with an effigy of Thek tied to its underside, surrounded by fish and looking like Christ, aka the fisherman.
Despite his success as a sculptor and installation artist, Thek never seemed to give up painting, and Diver is peppered with these works, too: images of dwarves, mushrooms, seashells, and ocean scenes, including the diver of the exhibition’s title, dashed on sheets of newspaper. The paintings also include abstract color fields, although Thek’s muddy palette probably made Rothko grimace. Interestingly, Thek seemed to turn more and more to painting as the years passed. His work from the ’80s is nothing but tiny canvases in atrocious colors, covered with blotches, blobs, and phrases scrawled in childish handwriting. The thoughts articulated, however, are neither atrocious nor childlike, but probing and playful, such as “Hurrah Vacuii!!” and “Afflict the Comfortable/Comfort the Afflicted.”
Diver: A Retrospective ends with a transition between Thek’s ’80s pieces as installed by the exhibition’s present day curators and a restaging of Paul Thek’s last show, at Soho’s Brooke Alexander Gallery in 1988, and installed by Thek himself. This is perhaps the sweetest spot of the show. In 1987, Thek was diagnosed with AIDS, and by the time the show came around he was almost too sick to hang his work. Whether for this reason or for another, the paintings encircle the room at the height of a child. Mostly turquoise, they include images of butterflies, schools of fish, and dust, plus a barred window with the bars forced open. Peaceful, playful, and mournful, at the head of the room is a tiny, schoolchild’s chair, placed in front of two cityscapes in museum frames. One image in particular stands out: in it, the waning light of the sun hits the front of the buildings. Or, perhaps, for Paul Thek, it is not the end, but the beginning of the day.